Upanishads: Overview

An Overview of the Upanishads
By Swami Samarpanananda
Ramakrishna Mission: Vivekananda Education and Research Institute
Belur Math, Howrah, W. Bengal
YouTube Channel: Indian Spiritual Heritage

What are the Upanishads?

The Upanishads are the science of freedom through the knowledge of one’s true self.

The Vedas show the way to a blessed life by consecrating one’s actions, and they also reveal the science of freedom (mukti) from the world through spiritual efforts. In practice, however, the Vedas were identified with yajna that was believed to produce earthly and heavenly good. This was not to the liking of many whose spiritual urges were not to sate by the heavens and rebirths, which were after all an extension of present existence only. They wanted a more direct approach to spiritual wisdom, bereft of the paraphernalia associated with rituals. That need was fulfilled by the Upanishads.

The Vedas also had the problem of excess. One had to spend the better part of one’s life (around 32 years) mastering them! So the Upanishads replaced them as a direct approach to the Divine. With time the Upanishads too grew in large numbers, but as a system of knowledge these never became an overgrown system, since one does not have to read all the Upanishads to make use of them. If one knows any one Upanishad properly, he knows the essence of all the other Upanishads. This gives the Upanishads tremendous vitality, along with the age-old stability—something unusual in the history of human knowledge.

The last sections of each of the four Vedas are known as Upanishad. Since these come at the end of the Vedas, they are known as Vedanta. The term can also be interpreted to mean ‘the essence of the Vedas’. The Vedantins treat the Upanishads in this sense only. According to them, the rituals and other subject matter of the Vedas are the preparatory grounds for the final climb to the spiritual truths as presented in the Upanishads.

It is difficult to say how many Upanishads there are. The number is put anywhere between 108 and 1008. Acharya Shankara (c. 8th century), the great unifier of Hindu system of thought, has commented upon eleven principal Upanishads, and has referred to a few more in his commentaries. These Upanishads are respected more than others.

The Upanishads are not easy to understand without a commentary and a proper teacher. The truths presented in the Upanishads (these are not philosophical speculations) are so subtle and profound that only those with extremely sharp and penetrating minds can grasp them fully.


The sages realised the Divine as pure consciousness which was the reality beneath all existence. They called it Brahman (the Great) which had no qualifying traits, no attribute, no form, etc. This came to be known as nirguna Brahman, the impersonal God, who is ever present and everywhere present God for whom no adjective can be employed. The subject of discussion in every Upanishad is this. He (or, it) is infinite, ever free, without a form, and beyond the grasp of the human mind. He cannot be called a knowing being, because knowledge belongs to the human mind; he cannot be called a reasoning being, because reasoning is a sign of weakness; he cannot be called a creating being, because none creates except in bondage. The Upanishads describe Brahman as beyond subject-object duality. It is beyond good and bad, and virtue and vice. Brahman is sat (existence), chit (consciousness), and ananda (bliss), since it exists, it is consciousness, and is full of bliss

To know this truth, one has to become one with it, ‘The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman’. The triad of knower-knowledge known disappears in that state, and what remains, remains. Only those who have experienced that state know its true nature. But even they cannot describe it for reasons described above. When this reality is perceived through the mind, it appears as having qualities and attributes, and hence it is known as saguna Brahman (God with qualities). This is also known as God, who is merciful, powerful, and with innumerable noble qualities. He is the omnipresent creator, preserver, and destroyer of everything.

The Upanishads talk of both these aspects, but their speciality lies in discussing the impersonal aspect of Brahman.

Knowledge of Reality

According to the sages, the world is important, and hence the knowledge to lead a meaningful life is important, but the key to all knowledge is the knowledge of Brahman. Whatever is in the universe, is Brahman, and hence by knowing it one knows everything, the way one knows the essence of all gold ornaments by knowing about gold. The most accepted method of acquiring the knowledge of Brahman was to go to an accomplished teacher and get groomed into it.

One meaning of the word ‘Upanishads’ is, to sit near the teacher and master the science of self-knowledge.

Alternatively, the word also means ‘the knowledge that results in destroying the identifications of a person with the world’.

The Upanishads were always learnt directly from a teacher, and if not used as a technique of freedom, these were as meaningless as a heap of words. Following this principle, nearly every Upanishad is in the form of a discourse by a teacher who was a renowned sage of the period. Even when a specific teacher is not mentioned, the presence of teacher is palpable in that Upanishad. Thus the authenticity of knowledge imparted by an Upanishad was maintained strictly at a personalised level. It is interesting to know that in spite of a large number of teachers mentioned in the Upanishads, their teachings are invariably the same.

To acquire that knowledge (not mere information) of Brahman, one had to perform intense austerities, known as tapasya. The word comes from the root tap which means ‘heat’, and also knowledge. When one goes through the blazing heat of tapasya in the form of selfless service, devotion, meditation, scriptural studies, or any other austerities, all the dross of his mind burns up. The mind then becomes calm and fit to receive instructions.


The Upanishads teach that atman is the true self of every individual, and that it is non-different from Brahman—the individual and the universal are same.

The general approach of the Upanishads is to lead a person from his gross ideas of self to the realisation of himself as the universal self. In one of the Upanishads, the teacher shows how his body, made by food, is his self. From there he leads the student to show vital forces working within his body as the self; then the mind as the self; intelligence as self; the ‘I’ness appearing as the thin veil separating him from the universal self as his self; and finally atman as the true self, which is eternally conscious, beyond good and bad, virtue and vice, birth and death, etc.

This spiritual knowledge is not speculative the way philosophy is, but it is intuitive. The technical word for it is non-indirect knowledge, which means that it is different from instinct, sensual, or inferential knowledge. Unlike every other kind of knowledge, spiritual knowledge is not acquired through the mind, but it is the consciousness itself that becomes conscious of its nature.

The example used in Vedanta is that of a clear crystal in front of which a coloured flower is placed. The flower apparently influences the transparent nature of the crystal. But when the flower is removed, the crystal becomes what it was all along—clear. The true self of everyone is exactly like this crystal—free of any tinge.


Aum is the symbolic representation of both personal and impersonal aspects of God. When one looks at the created world, one realises that every object has three aspects: physical manifestation, verbal representation, and the idea behind the both. Thus every object in this world, seen and unseen, has a name that requires sound produced by the vocal system which begins with the guttural ‘a’, through velar ‘u’, and ending at the lips with ‘m’. By combining these three sounds one gets ‘Aum’, which is the symbolic matrix of all sound, and hence the basis for all names. Since name and objects are non-different, and God being the matrix of all objects, ‘Aum’ is respected as the verbal representation of God. The silence that follows after one pronounces Aum, denotes the impersonal aspect of God, implying that it cannot have any attribute. Hindus may squabble over many other things of their religion, but they all agree on the universality of Aum.

Three Schools

When a spiritual aspirant makes effort to gain knowledge, he first has to get rid of his desires for this life, and also afterlife. As one gains more and more spiritual knowledge through the calmness of his mind, one sees himself as atman, the conscious principle within him. This stage is known as dvaita (duality). If the aspirant continues with his spiritual practices, he comes to realise that the atman that is within him, is the essence of others too. This is known as visishta-advaita (conditional non-dualism). Finally, the aspirant may come to realise that atman (what he took for his individual consciousness) alone exists, and that, it is non-different from Brahman, the ever existent reality, which is by its very nature pure, infinite, eternal, etc. This last state of self-knowledge is known as advaita. Advaita is sometimes referred to as monism, but it is grossly incorrect. Monism implies presence of one, single entity, but Advaita is non-dual, implying that there are no two separate realities like consciousness and inertness, or mind and matter. Advaita implies that there is no way of knowing if it is one, or beyond the idea of one–two, since the mind itself ceases to exist in that state. The best way to describe the state of Advaita is ‘What is, is’; one cannot say anything else about it in defining terms.

The idea of Advaita, although quite incomprehensible by the common minds, is the highest realisation by the Hindu mind, and is its greatest contribution to the world of religions. This state has been compared to mixing pure water with pure water, and as realising oneself as the calm, majestic self instead of the volatile. There are other metaphors too.

When a person realises his identity with the supreme Brahman, popularly known as aham Brahma asmi (I am Brahaman), one becomes free from the cycle of birth and death. Hinduism thus talks of achieving blessedness here and now, in this very life. One who realises the truth that he is atman, is known as jivanmukta, free while living. This is the highest spiritual state that has ever been described in any religion, and is unique to Hinduism. This knowledge is undoubtedly the crown jewel of all spiritual knowledge. And, like any precious knowledge acquired by the human race, it has to preserved at any cost.


If Hindu religion has a true distinctive feature, it is this knowledge of jivanmukti. Relevance in Present Times The Upanishads are the undiluted philosophy of Hinduism. Every other aspect of Hinduism follows the general principles of Vedanta—man is divine. In fact, every soul, every conscious form, and every particle is divine. The difference between any two life forms, or between inert matter and life form lies in the manifestation of that divinity. A conscious effort at it makes the manifestation more palpable. As a thought system, and also as a way of life, the Upanishads are clearly the power, glory, and the ultimate achievement of the Hindu race. No other contribution by India to the world can ever match the majesty, sublimity, and vitality embodied in these sacred texts.